As Americans celebrate Independence Day, Forum’s US Programs & Operations Advisor, Christina Daniels-Freeman, considers the threat climate change poses to the rights and freedoms we so often take for granted.

For many, the Fourth of July evokes a sense of childlike wonder and excitement. Long days at the pool or beach, grand fireworks displays, picnics and BBQs, and parades. Independence Day celebrates the ratification of the Declaration of Independence and, as such, the privileges and freedoms that – presumably – come with living in the United States (US). 

But as destabilizing events, from climate-induced natural disasters to eruptions of gun violence and racist brutality, to Supreme Court decisions eradicating access to health care and trans rights, to the COVID-19 pandemic, cause panic and fear, how can we secure the freedoms that many Americans take for granted? And as we teeter on the brink of social upheaval, how can we guarantee changes to the ways we live and work to create a just and regenerative future: one in which all living systems are free and able to adapt, replenish and regenerate, and in which we respect everyone’s human rights and potential to thrive?

It’s an ambitious goal, but arguably not new. The Declaration of Independence begins by granting “certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and is corroborated by the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution and other seminal legislation, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Globally, these values are emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines  the “right to life, liberty and security of person.”

These rights, however, are increasingly threatened as justice and freedom are oppressed and climate change endangers the planet’s very existence.

Climate change’s threat to human rights

Climate change affects one in three Americans. In 2022, the US experienced 18 separate weather or climate disasters (categorized by those events with losses exceeding $1 billion in damages) and three million Americans were internally displaced. Already in 2023, deadly tornadoes rampaged through Kentucky; floods engulfed Georgia; and, most recently, smoke from wildfires in Canada enveloped much of the East and Midwest, causing hazardous air quality conditions. These disasters imperil communities’ health and posterity: the World Health Organization has declared climate change the “single biggest health threat facing humanity,” jeopardizing access to clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. 

But that’s not to say people aren’t standing up to these injustices, fighting for their freedom and the independence represented by the Fourth of July. 

A landmark case is currently making its way through the court system, with Gen Z climate activists fighting to hold the government accountable for its contributions to climate change. 16 youths, ages five to twenty-two, are suing the state of Montana, arguing that the government has created an environment in which the fossil fuel industry thrives, therefore advancing climate change and failing to uphold the state’s constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment.” The plaintiffs also allege that the government is violating the public trust doctrine, which states that it must preserve its natural resources, including public lands, waters, fish and wildlife, for current and future generations. While we await the final ruling in early July, the case gives me hope, as activists, not much younger than myself, call attention to the fact that freedom cannot be guaranteed without a transition to a future that is both socially just and ecologically regenerative.

A just and regenerative approach means strengthening the capacity of all living systems to adapt, replenish and regenerate; respecting everyone’s human rights and potential to thrive; and rewiring our economies and societies to serve both people and the planet.

Discussion around the effects of climate change on human rights and freedoms is not new. At COP21 in 2015, global leaders highlighted that “climate change has profound impacts on a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life, self-determination, development, food, health, water and sanitation and housing.” By interlinking human rights and climate change, we have strengthened protections for all living things. An assortment of other proposals have enabled piecemeal change. These include granting Lake Eerie legal rights to protect it from pollution and litigating the case of Ioane Teitiota, who fled the sinking island of Kiribati, applying for refugee status in New Zealand (he was denied the freedoms and protections granted under refugee law).

What do we owe future generations?

These efforts, and the rapid intensification of climate-induced disasters, beg the question: what do we owe future generations? How can we ensure they have a livable planet in which to thrive? While the intense polarization of American politics is slowing climate action, with devastating effects, I remain cautiously optimistic. But I’m also impatient. It is imperative that we tackle the planet’s complex challenges together, and quickly, to transition to a just and regenerative future, and that we fight for all human rights and freedoms, including those intertwined with planetary health.

Then, we just might be a bit closer to the America The Beautiful that Ray Charles sang about, preserving for posterity the “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties” of this vast continent – and some of the freedoms represented by the Fourth of July might actually ring true.

Christina works in Forum’s US office. Find out more about Forum’s work in the US to enable just transitions through American Climate Futures, Growing our Future and the Climate and Health Coalition